Secondhand Smoke

I like to joke that “secondhand Taylor Swift” is the leading reason I’m familiar with most of her songs. My wife keeps her music on repeat.

Similarly, my wife claims she’s listened to enough of my podcast episodes through the wall to host my show.

While these make for a good laugh, there’s also an important truth at work under the surface:

We passively consume what others around us do.

The famous motivational Jim Rohn once put it this way, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time around.”

The same thing holds true for ideas. For music. Health. Habits. Money. And nearly every other aspect of life.

Negative vs. Positive Externalities

In economics, the concept “negative externalities” describes the incidences of an unavoidable cost to a third party based on your production or consumption.

Put in simple terms, a negative externality is an unavoidable bad consequence of your decisions. For instance, maybe you signed a lease at an apartment and you got randomly assigned to a unit next to a neighbor who smokes (or plays music at all hours).

Similarly, positive externalities also exist. For instance, let’s say you spend a lot of time at the local coffee shop, and it just so happens that your favorite band plays open mic night. Or that a book club regularly meets there that discusses ideas you are interested in.

While you can’t always control the externalities, you can control your decisions. If you’re deliberate enough, perhaps you can begin to spot the potential of negative externalities before you’re stuck with them.

Secondhand Consumption of Good Ideas

You can’t control what other people do. But you can control your choices.

One sure-fire way to improve your likelihood of success along a specific dimension is to limit your exposure to other people whose habits contradict your aims.

For instance, if you’re highly ambitious, but all your friends are broke, drug-addicted burnouts, it’s time to find new friends.

But it goes both ways.

You can also seek out to surround yourself with people (and books and ideas, etc.) that support you in your aims.

For example, if it’s important to you to maintain a positive outlook, actively avoid pessimists and actively seek out optimists.

You have the ability to change your location, and to replant yourself in better soil. Take advantage of this.

Secondhand smoking might kill you. But secondhand success never hurt anybody.